The Penguins have proven over the past few years that they can get by without a core player or two, which doesn’t mean they’re interested in doing it again. That’s a possibility, however, after center Evgeni Malkin had to leave their 3-1 victory against Florida at Consol Energy Center Friday night during the third period because of an unspecified injury.
Malkin departed at 4:51, after Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson knocked him into the boards behind the Florida goal line, capping a sequence in which Malkin had tried to take the puck to the net. His back struck the boards first. His head followed suit, but only after it had snapped back violently.
No penalty was called, and the Penguins said nothing to suggest they felt one was in order according to ESPN Insider. “I just finished my check,” Gudbranson said. “You never want to see a guy go down. He’s in a vulnerable position, but you can’t pass up a hit like that. “You never know. He goes around the net, guy gets the puck and passes it back-door to him. It’s unfortunate that he got hurt on the play, but it’s [a hit] that I’d take every time.”
There was no immediate word on the nature or severity of Malkin’s injury, although there appeared to be no shortage of possibilities. A concussion or a whiplash-type neck problem certainly seemed possible, and an issue with his back could not be ruled out. “He’s being further evaluated this evening,” coach Dan Bylsma said in a press conference. Malkin left the ice without assistance, but went directly to the locker room and did not return.
If Malkin is out for a significant period, it would be a severe blow to the Penguins, who raised their record to 12-6 and evened their mark on home ice at 4-4. He is their No. 2 scorer with four goals and 17 assists in 18 games and has formed a lethal partnership with right winger James Neal.
Bylsma suggested that if Malkin is sidelined, Brandon Sutter would move into his spot with Neal and rookie Beau Bennett, who got his first steady work with Malkin and Neal on Friday night, while Dustin Jeffrey could be shifted to the third line, likely with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy.
The game was scoreless until 8:25 of the second, when Florida’s Mike Weaver scored from the right point. The goal initially was credited to Jonathan Huberdeau, an early rookie of the year candidate, but he apparently didn’t touch Weaver’s shot before it eluded Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
The Penguins countered quickly when, at 10:41, Chris Kunitz poked a loose puck past Panthers goalie Jacob Markstrom on a power play for his seventh of the season. That extended the Penguins’ streak of games with a man-advantage goal to 10 and ended a run of 23 consecutive failed power plays against the Panthers.
Until Kunitz scored, the Penguins had been frustrated repeatedly by the 6-foot-6 Markstrom. “He takes up a lot of net,” Crosby said after the game. “You have to put your shot in a good spot because he’s got a good chance of getting something on it.” Matt Niskanen’s winner at 7:49 of the third sailed past Markstrom’s glove, which had grabbed everything thrown its way most of the game, even though it actually wasn’t intended to.
“I was actually aiming for his pad,” Niskanen said. “There wasn’t a screen, so I was hoping for maybe a rebound or something. But it snuck through somehow.” Dustin Jeffrey, a healthy scratch for nine of the previous 10 games, added an insurance goal at 15:15, as the Penguins were rewarded in the third for wearing down the Panthers.